Women's History

Gendering Popular Politics: Medieval Riot, State Formation, and the Absence of Women

Women now regularly participate in May Day protests and marches. Shannon McSheffrey explores why 1517’s Evil May Day riots, like other premodern riots, excluded women. Photo: Charles Edward Miller, under Creative Commons licence.

It used to be a progressive historian’s truism that premodern riots were women’s politics: outside formal political structures, women could forcefully express their opinions about food shortages, religious change, and other issues that mattered to them. Few medieval historians, however, entered into that enthusiasm about street protest as locus of women’s agency, for there is almost no evidence at all for participation by women in riots and revolts of the middle ages. A few historians have addressed this absence of women (most recently Samuel K. Cohn in 2017), but no one has yet satisfactorily explained why so few women appear in prosecution records or narrative accounts.

I’ve been thinking about this in relation to a specific riot in London in 1517 known as Evil May Day. On the eve of May 1, 1517 hundreds of people ran through the streets of the City, sacking shops and threatening strangers, especially in immigrant enclaves. If women’s participation is a litmus test, then Evil May Day was a medieval riot, rather than an early modern one. All those indicted for their part in the riot were men. A few women might have been involved: for instance, a report from chronicler Edward Hall indicates that eleven women (all unnamed, unfortunately) were amongst the four hundred or so people who were pardoned by the king for their roles in the event. Toting up all evidence we have for riot participants, women made about 2% of the total.

Apprentices attacking the Ludgate on 1 May 1517; supplement to the “London Apprentice”. 1852 Wood-engraving, (c) British Museum

That’s a small number – but it’s actually on the high end in comparison with the overall evidence for participation in popular riots and revolts in Europe for the two centuries or so preceding Evil May Day. Most often there is no record at all of women’s involvement in such events, even when hundreds of participants are named. Or the numbers are even less than 2%: for instance, following the Great Rising in 1381 in England, 3,429 people were pardoned, of whom thirty were women, less than 1%. As Sylvia Federico has argued, on the one hand this does indicate that women were involved, but to my mind the more obvious point is that it was starkly, overwhelmingly male. More proximately to 1517, if we look at early sixteenth-century English riots, particularly the quite numerous enclosure riots of those decades, Christian Liddy’s recent study mentions only male participants, and my double-checking with lists of fines for rioters in Yorkshire and Westmorland in 1515 verifies this impression: 150 men, no women. Similarly, from what I can tell both by a quick trawl through the recent scholarship on the 1536-37 rebellions and then a look at the indictment file for the Lincolnshire rebellion in October 1536 (101 men, no women), there is little indication that women were involved in those 1530s insurrections either.

Indictment file for Lincolnshire rebels, 1536, TNA, KB 9/539; photo courtesy AALT.

Medievalists would thus not be surprised by the relative absence of women in the Evil May Day riot — and indeed they might be surprised (as Hall evidently was) that there were any women at all, for eleven women is, in relative terms, a fairly substantial number. But only relatively: if we begin to think of 2% as substantial we are missing the obvious. This is not a glass that is half empty or half full: it’s 98% empty, and its companion glass is 98% full. Why were these events so male-dominated?

Well, perhaps they were not quite as male-dominated as the surviving evidence indicates. To use the historian’s cliché, absence of evidence is not always evidence of absence. Perhaps women were involved in the Evil May Day riot but those who described it in narratives or who later prosecuted it did not think their participation merited attention. The sense that violence, including riot, was a masculine form of behaviour was strong, likely acting as a filter that prevented women’s participation from being seen. This same powerful association between violence and masculinity was, however, also a powerful inhibitor to women’s participation in the first place. So, although there may well have been more than eleven women who were in some way involved in the Evil May Day riot and its aftermath, I don’t think the answer to the gender imbalance lies in a systematic exclusion of women from the records.

Another obvious reason why the Evil May Day riot was dominated by men is its particular nature: if it’s a bit too simplistic, I think, to call it an apprentice riot, it certainly came out of the London craft guilds and focused on labour issues that concerned male rather than female workers. Women were absent in part because women were largely excluded from formal participation in guilds. Indeed, the framing of the rioters’ grievances emphasized the association between work and masculinity: the immigrants prevented young English craft workers in London from becoming householders and fathers by usurping the livelihood that would allow them to set up shop and marry. The Evil May Day riot was thus an economic and political protest that specifically concerned men rather than women. This characterization fits squarely with the recent work on late medieval riot and revolt, which argues that popular insurrections in Europe were political acts integral to state formation, both in city states and in the kingdoms and other larger polities.

There has, however, been relatively little discussion of the extent to which the political nature of these disorders connects to their overwhelming maleness. This, I think, is because this is an uncomfortable topic. Most of the historiography on revolt and riot has been progressivist in its underlying politics: from the foundational Marxist scholarship of Rodney Hilton through a recent burgeoning of comparative scholarship, the historians’ sympathies have been, implicitly — or sometimes, as in the recent work of Samuel K. Cohn, explicitly — with the rebels rather than the government authorities against whom the insurrectionists complained. The rebels were the good guys and the recent literature argues that what they did mattered: revolt and riot were means through which Europeans at all social levels, not just the elites, shaped their governments and made their societies.

I am a great admirer of this scholarship and I am fully on board with the contention that riots were political acts, if I am not always totally convinced by the argument that finely-tuned rational strategies underlay how they unfolded. I would like, however, to introduce some qualifications. The scholarship on European state formation—which has, broadly speaking, been quite celebratory of the inclusiveness of late medieval and early modern political culture—has paid far too little attention to one particularly hard boundary in that culture’s remarkable social depth: it was a man’s world, and with rare exceptions women partook of it only obliquely. Women, it is true, could take advantage of their lack of political status and resulting relative impunity and (as reportedly happened in the days following Evil May Day) hurl invective at strangers when their menfolk feared, with good reason, that they would be arrested if they did the same. As Natalie Zemon Davis argued in her pioneering work on women and riot in early modern France, sometimes lack of political status could paradoxically allow for greater freedom of political action.

This greater freedom, however, shouldn’t be exaggerated: we must not understate the immense strength of the structural barriers that kept women from formal participation in political processes, even when occasionally small fissures in those structures allowed women to act and their voices to be heard. The exclusion of women from local political office was virtually total: in England, for instance, beadles, constables, churchwardens, jurors, ward and town councillors were all male (those few examples of female churchwardens were drops in an ocean). This, to my mind, is not something simply so obvious that it can remain implicit in how we talk about the formation of European states: we must keep saying it and thinking about it, because (apart from anything else) it is the precondition for the gendering of politics today.

If evidently scholars of late medieval and early modern popular politics and protest are uncomfortable addressing the absence of women, perhaps paradoxically Evil May Day is a good insurrection to think with, because the 1517 London rioters were not good guys. Evil May Day was an anti-immigrant riot; the rhetoric that inspired its participants was xenophobic and nativist. Sermons and posted bills in the weeks leading up to the riot emphasized that immigrants were criminals and sexual dissolutes; as a sermon from a famous preacher put it in the weeks before May Day, they seduced English men’s wives, stole their jobs, and indeed snatched the very bread from the mouths of their starving English children. It was God’s work, the preacher proclaimed, to fight against them and even kill them (they didn’t actually kill anyone in the riot, but they did threaten to). The nastiness of the rioters is perhaps one reason why Evil May Day has had so little scholarly attention: it’s generally omitted from discussion of both medieval and early modern English riots and revolts (it’s neither in Cohn’s Popular Protest in Late Medieval English Towns nor in Fletcher and MacCulloch’s Tudor Rebellions). It’s an uncomfortable fit with popular politics as the precursor of progressive movements today: but perhaps it’s time for us to face more frankly the patriarchal underpinnings of all our political practices.

One Comment

  1. Convincing.
    Gendered attitude to mercy as you indicate, may submerge female participation.
    Women in grain riots.

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